Could this be Mashrafe’s last dance…

Sylhet Strikers captain Mashrafe Bin MortazaShamsul Hoque

Sylhet Strikers and Rangpur Riders will face off on Tuesday in the second qualifier of the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) 2023.

The stakes in the game are quite high as the winner will head onto the final and take on defending champions Comilla Victorians whereas the loser will go home dejected, feeling the agony of falling short after coming so far.

However, this match could end up becoming a significant game in the annals of Bangladesh cricket for a completely different reason.

On Tuesday, Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, the most successful captain in Bangladesh cricket history, the most successful Bangladeshi pacer in international cricket and an undisputed icon of the country’s cricket, could very well be playing his final match in BPL.

Sylhet Strikers captain Mashrafe Bin Mortaza
Prothom Alo

Mashrafe is leading the newly formed Sylhet Strikers in this year’s BPL. And under his leadership, Sylhet excelled in the group stage, topping the seven-team table with nine wins in 12 games.

The highflying Strikers, however, were brought down to the ground on Sunday in the first qualifier when Comilla bundled them out for a meagre 125 and then easily chased down the runs with ample time to spare.

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However, thanks to their top two finish in the group stage, Sylhet will get another bite at the cherry against Rangpur, who made it to the second qualifier by knocking Shakib Al Hasan’s Fortune Barishal out of the tournament in the eliminator.

To make it to the final, Mashrafe’s Sylhet will have to defeat the Nurul Hasan-led Rangpur side, who look like a much-improved team than they did in the group stage.

In the eliminator game against Barishal, Rangpur used four new overseas players– Dwayne Bravo, Nicolas Pooran, Dasun Shanaka and Mujeeb ur Rahman– that they ‘scavenged’ from other leagues.

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The four overseas recruits have significantly boosted Rangpur’s might and made them, at least on paper, a stronger team than Sylhet.

In the group stage, Sylhet rode on the form of local batters Towhid Hridoy, Najmul Hossain Shanto and Zakir Hasan and two Pakistani players Mohammad Amir and Imad Wasim were important cogs in the bowling attack.

Mashrafe Bin Mortaza has led Sylhet Strikers from the front
Shamsul Hoque

However, both Amir and Imad have flown back to Pakistan ahead of the Pakistan Premier League (PSL). Sylhet have brought in South African all-rounder George Linde and Sri Lankan pacer Isuru Udana.

But Sylhet’s overseas replacements look pale compared to Rangpur’s fresh recruits.

Mashrafe, who is known for bringing the best out of his limited resources as captain, will have to do exactly that to keep Sylhet’s title hopes alive and to extend his BPL career for at least another game.

No, Mashrafe hasn’t said or hinted that this will be his final BPL. Technically, Mashrafe is still available for selection for the national team as he is yet to retire from all formats in international cricket.

Mashrafe hasn’t played an international game since 6 March 2020, when he left the post of Bangladesh captain in One-Day Internationals (ODI). The pacer retired from Twenty20 Internationals in 2017 and hasn’t played a Test since July 2009. But he never officially quit Tests or ODIs.

Tamim Iqbal lifts Mashrafe Bin Mortaza after his final match as the Bangladesh captain
Shamsul Hoque

However, the reality is that at the age of 39, time is running out for the ‘Narail Express’. Mashrafe is also a parliament member of the ruling Awami League and his responsibilities at that end is only increasing as in December 2022, he was named the youth and sports secretary of the party.

Mashrafe’s performance in this year’s BPL has been more than decent as he has claimed 12 wickets in 12 appearances to rank eighth in the wicket-takers list. His economy rate at 7.62 is also nothing to scoff at.

Mashrafe Bin Mortaza
Shamsul Hoque

The right-handed batter also showed that he is still a useful batting option to have in hand during the 1st qualifier.

He promoted himself to number five after Sylhet lost three wickets inside three overs and then formed a 56-run partnership with Shanto, of which he contributed 26 runs off 17 balls.

Still, age is catching up with the pacer.

During Sylhet’s match against Khulna Tigers on 30 January, Mashrafe had to leave the field just one ball into his third over due to a side strain.

Mashrafe didn’t return to the field for the rest of the match and was also absent from Sylhet’s next game against Rangpur, which his team lost.

Injuries are part and parcel of cricket. But after fighting injuries for almost two decades, how much longer can Mashrafe put his battered body through the hardship of playing competitive cricket is a question that has crossed the mind of every Bangladesh cricket fan.

Mashrafe’s chances of returning to the national team are next to zero and the proud pacer has already rejected the offer to play a farewell game for the Tigers.

Realistically, bidding adieu to cricket with his fifth BPL trophy in hand is the best possible way to sign off from the game.

But for that to happen, Mashrafe’s Sylhet will have to defeat Rangpur first.